What Ever Happened to the South Philly Mob?

It’s been at least six years since anyone has been killed by the Philadelphia Mafia. Is it the passing of a way of life, or an eerie calm before an ­approaching storm? Our writer takes to the streets of South Philly — and sips wine with the current Godfather — to find out

Once, as I sat eating dinner at the bar, I overheard one of the men nearby mock me: “He’s here to look at the mobsters,” he told his friend. 

I took his point. After a few visits to the place, I’d seen no mobsters. But I kept coming, just to enjoy the Mexican ravioli for its own sake. Malone’s is presided over by Joe Malone, a friendly, hulking Irishman. Malone is the father-in-law of Steve Mazzone, who never did show up on that not-so-fateful night to get killed.

Instead, Mazzone was convicted in 2001 of racketeering charges and acquitted of murder. Upon his release in 2007, he returned to his wife and kids, who live just around the corner. What his future holds is an open question. But it’s a safe bet that men paid by the federal government are watching to find out.

Malone’s still plays host to the mob’s annual Christmas party, during which the criminals revel indoors while the police watch from the street. But Joe Malone recently cut the bar down in size, to accommodate more tables for a growing clientele from outside the neighborhood. And anyone who comes here “looking for mobsters” will probably have to settle for the afterglow of recent history, not the real thing.  

Understanding the state of our current mob requires an understanding of Joey Merlino. For one thing, Merlino symbolizes the mob’s ultimate degradation: its fall from a syndicate with at least some rules about its conduct, to a group of thugs from the neighborhood who got involved in everything from baby-formula heists to cocaine sales, extortion and murder. It’s also Merlino who may return to his post as boss.

The feds are said to be preparing an indictment for Ligambi, who took over the mob in 1999, after Merlino was arrested. In a reversal of fortune, Ligambi’s arrest could set the stage for Merlino’s return, in 2011, to a city in which his two most trusted associates — Steve Mazzone and John Ciancaglini — are already free. Merlino will still be young, at 49 years old. And photos of him in prison show Skinny Joey used his abundant free time to get ripped — his body heavily muscled and perhaps ready for war.

As one criminal defense attorney in town puts it: “Everyone knows, Joey wanted a piece of everything. It’s hard to imagine him coming out and being satisfied with whatever comes his way.”

Throughout my journey, talk of the current mob drew shrugs. The only time I tasted real, bitter fear was at the mention of Merlino’s name. On Passyunk Avenue, where Merlino once ran a small cafe, I ventured into Colombo’s sandwich shop, where the proprietor threw up his hands like two big stop signs at the syllables “Mer-lin-o” and repeated “I got nothin’ to say” until I walked out the door. In a cheese shop down the street, a manager came barreling to the counter: “We don’t know anything,” he repeated, until I went for the exit. In an after-hours club, a woman told me, as if speaking for all of South Philadelphia, “We don’t want Joey back. I hope he never gets out of prison. A lot of good people lost their lives, for no good reason.”

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  • Matt

    Came across this article today. I live very near the "social club" on 13th street, and always had my theories on just what type of place it is. Now I know. Good read. And for the record, most of the clients there are good people, just the younger crowd making a ruckus at 3am that's a problem.

  • Jill

    I moved from Center City to 11th and Wolf a couple of years ago. I walk my dog past the club on 13th Street all the time. Like the previous commenter, I always had my suspicions, but the guys outside have always been courteous, even complimenting my dog. Oh, and the food at Bomb Bomb is really, really good. I'm really enjoying the neighborhood, which seems easier to do without Merlino-type antics happening.

  • Suite jimmy

    The Philadelphia{MOB} has always been an entiny unto itself,however, reporters will never get the true story straight it remains hidden for over a hundred years…EMERTA is alive and well!!!

    • Philly

      Omerta you mean. Code of honor / code of silence… Very powerful and the way to live. My grandpop always said keep your mouth shut no matter what!!

  • Pasquale

    Plain and simple…Uncle Joe has brought respect and stability back to this city's La Cosa Nostra. He's a proud man who have survived several regimes and is quite frankly "The Last Man Standing." He's smart in that he's learned from the mistakes the other have made. Good job Uncle Joe! We love ya!

  • Brian

    Anyone have any idea where the Grays Ferry steak and veal spot is? I can't think of anywhere on the street that Mr. Ligambi could have been talking about.

  • meat

    The only thing I can think of would be Gaupp Meat at 33rd and Dickinson,though it's wholesale. Of course, I am sure Mr. Ligambi could make that work.

  • BUCK

    I MYSELF COMMING AND GROWING UP IN ALL ITALIAN NIEGBORHOOD LIKE S.PHILLY; WALKED INTO THE BOMB BOMB BY CHANCE, LOOKED LIKE A PLACE I WAS USED TO AND WAS RIGHT, AT FIRST THERE WERE SOME SUSPISIONS PUT SOON SUBSIDED, THEY ASKED IF I WAS FROM S.PHILLY I SAID NO BUT A PLACE SIMALAR TO THIS, I DROPPED BY AFTER A DOCTORS APP. AT HUP. I TRULY THINK YOU HAVE TO BE, ITALIAIN TO UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE, AND HOW PEOPLE ARE I LOVE THE PLACE AND GO OFTEN AND NOT LOOKIN FOR A THRILL OF SEEING "MOBSTERS"

  • DINO

    ITALIANS ARE ALL OVER AND NOW WERE EVERYWERE PEOPLE ITALIANS ARE GREAT IN EVERTHING NOT JUST FROM BEING FROM SOUTHPHILA MY FATHER FROM SOUTH PHILA HIS FATHER FROM THE MOTHER LAND MY MOTHER FROM NORTHEAST HER PARENTS FROM ITALY THE MOTHER LAND YES IAM ALL ITALY SO WHAT IAM SOUTHPHILA ITALIAN WERE MY FATHER GREW UP OR JUST ITALIAN ITS CRAZY LOVE ALL ITALIANS GOD BLESS US ALL

  • Anonymous

    MY NAME IS NICKY AND I RELIZE THAT PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO GET RID OF ARE KIND BUT TO BE HONEST THAT AN’T STOPING ME FROM WHAT I DO AND AN’T STOPING THEM FOR WHAT THEY DO JUST GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE AND MIND YOUR OWN FUCKING BUSINESS AND GO BACK TO WHATEVER YOU FUCKING CAME FROM.

    • Danny Philly

      BADA BING. BADA BOOM. STFU.

  • erik “stick man”

    I lived in the 300 block of Wolf St. in the mid to late 80′s and early 90′s. i miss those days! I hope to soon come back with my wife and children to show them my old stomping grounds!

  • Robert Rura

    I need to know where i can find the italian mob. I’m 50% italian and i have no where else to go, i got a dui and my parents are kicking me out of the house. I grew up @ 12th and Moore and use to know people in the mob but have lost contact with them over the years. Please help me regain access to them. 215-301-7815 is my number

    • Danny Philly

      dude. stfu.